CANBERRA, Australia – Australia’s Parliament passed legislation Thursday that could imprison social media executives if their platforms stream violent images such as the New Zealand mosque shootings.
Critics warn that some of the most restrictive laws about online communication in the democratic world could have unforeseen consequences, including media censorship and reduced investment in Australia.
The government introduced the bills in response to the March 15 attacks in Christchurch in which an Australian white supremacist apparently used a helmet-mounted camera to broadcast live as he shot worshippers in the two mosques, killing 50 people and wounding dozens.
Thursday was Parliament’s last sitting day before elections are expected to be held in May.
“Together we must act to ensure that perpetrators and their accomplices cannot leverage online platforms for the purpose of spreading their violent and extreme propaganda – these platforms should not be weaponized for evil,” Attorney-General Christian Porter told Parliament while introducing the bill.
The opposition’s spokesman on the attorney-general portfolio, Mark Dreyfus, said the bill would have Labor Party’s support, despite misgivings. If the Labor won government at the election, the law would be reviewed by a parliamentary committee.
The bill passed without debate in the Senate on Wednesday night.
The bill would make it a crime for social media platforms not to remove “abhorrent violent material” quickly. The crime would be punishable by three years in prison and a fine of $7.5 million or 10 percent of the platform’s annual turnover.
Platforms anywhere in the world would face fines of up to $600,000 if they fail to notify Australian Federal Police if they are aware their service was streaming “abhorrent violent conduct” occurring in Australia.
Dreyfus described the bill as “flimsy and flawed.” He described the timetable to pass the bill as “ridiculous.” Labor first saw the legislation late Monday.
The bill could potentially undermine Australia’s security cooperation with the United States by requiring U.S. internet providers to share content data with Australian Federal Police in breach of U.S. law, Dreyfus said.
“Labor believes that the social media companies must do more in preventing the dissemination of material produced by terrorists, showing of their crimes, and for that reason Labor will, despite reservations … be supporting the passage of this bill,” Dreyfus told parliament before the bill was passed.
An attempt by the minor Greens party and independent lawmakers to have the vote scrutinized by a parliamentary committee was rejected.
Arthur Moses, president of the Australian Law Council, the nation’s top lawyers group, said the bill should be reviewed by a parliamentary committee before becoming law.
“Whistleblowers may no longer be able to deploy social media to shine a light on atrocities committed around the world because social media companies will be required to remove certain content for fear of being charged with a crime,” Moses said in a statement. “It could also lead to censorship of the media, which would be unacceptable.”
The penalties would be “bad for certainty and bad for business” which could scare off online business investment in Australia, Moses said.
Australian Industry Group chief executive Innes Willox, a leading business advocate, said more time was required to ensure the law did not unnecessarily impinge on existing fundamental media rights and freedoms.
“Rushing this legislation through will not make Australia safe,” he said.
Facebook livestreamed footage of the Christchurch massacre for 17 minutes without interruption before reacting. Facebook said it removed 1.5 million videos of the shootings during the first 24 hours afterward. Brenton Tarrant is charged with murder and is scheduled to appear in court Friday.
New Zealand’s Justice Minster Andrew Little said his government had also made a commitment to review the role of social media and the obligations of the companies that provide the platforms.
And he said he’d asked officials to look at the effectiveness of current hate speech laws and whether there were gaps that need to be filled.
Little said he didn’t see any irony in that people were watching hearings into a bill that would place new restrictions on guns in real time on Facebook, the same platform the shooter used to broadcast the massacre.
“There’s a world of difference, I think, between the exercise of a democratic function and a democratic institution like a national parliament, and some of the more toxic stuff that you see put out by individuals,” he said.
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